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Walk the Talk: Resources on Tackling Social Norms with Strategic Marketing & Communication Campaigns

By Malavika Krishnan

As social norms continues to gain traction in the behavior change field, practitioners have increasingly turned to adapting traditional marketing and communications campaigns. Social and behavior change communications methods have been implemented or tested in fields as diverse as gender-based violence, the illegal wildlife trade, college binge drinking, energy consumption, and of course, anti-corruption. They typically use normative messages to 1) convince people that behavior advocated in a campaign is already the norm; 2) correct misperceptions about prevalence and support for behavior; or 3) attach social stigma to unhealthy behaviors.

The Corruption, Justice, and Legitimacy Program sought to investigate social norms communications strategies’ rising popularity and break down its key components. As part of our ongoing Social Norms and Corruption Project, this research seeks to translate theory on social norms communications and marketing strategies into practical tips or recommendations that can be implemented in an anti-corruption program’s life cycle.

The following shortlist of notable resources is a result of a grey literature review conducted in Spring 2021, which identified 34 documents, of which 20 directly provided insight into overarching social norms communications strategies. This post offers a high-level overview of the key points in the literature along with a curated and annotated list of resources.

Social Norms Communications Campaigns are Best Combined with Multiple Components and Integrated into Multifaceted Approaches

Communications campaigns come in diverse forms and span all mediums—think of everything from TV and social media, to posters and soap operas and edutainment. Effective social norms communications campaigns frequently utilize multiple components of marketing and communications programs in and of themselves, as well as in combination with listening and discussion groups to spread indirect effects.

Changing Social Norms: the Importance of “Organized Diffusion” for Scaling Up Community Health Promotion and Women Empowerment Interventions, by Ben Cislaghi, Elaine Denny, Mady Cissé, Penda Gueye, Binita Shrestha, Prabin Nanicha Shrestha, Gemma Ferguson, Claire Hughes & Cari Jo Clark (2019)

Cislaghi et al. show that in the Change Starts at Home Program conducted in three rural Nepalese villages, communications campaigns may elicit desired effects for those who are directly exposed to messages and that community dialogue-based discussions can be an additional indirect strategy to influence people who may not have been exposed to the messages themselves. Given that social norms nudges when applied in isolation appear to have transitory effects at best, practitioners should look to include dialogue-based discussions to sustain long-term impact.

Social Norms Marketing to Reduce Gender Based Violence, by Elizabeth Levy Paluck and Laurie Ball (2010)

The combined effects of communications activities alongside improvements in service delivery or livelihood support can yield greater impact than standalone communications activities. Since practitioners must work with other service providers to ensure that any proposed new behavior is safe, rewarding, and accessible, thinking through these channel factors is crucial if communications strategies are to lead to meaningful behavior change. Program designers and implementers will find value in the authors’ discussion of integrating and situating behavior change approaches within the local context.

The SASA! Study: A cluster randomized trial to assess the impact of a violence and HIV prevention programme in Kampala, Uganda, by Charlotte Watts, Karen Devries, Ligia Kiss, Tanya Abramsky, Nambusi Kyegombe, and Lori Michau (2015)

SASA! is a community mobilization intervention that combines four strategies of local activism: media, advocacy, communications, and training. Here, to generate greater impact, allowing for high coverage and social diffusion of the message, SASA! pursued sustained and repeated message exposure. Based on their operational research, researchers found that an effective approach to working at a community level systematically integrates larger public engagement activities with ongoing engagement of key stakeholders and local activists (who conduct small-scale, one-on-one activities). This article neatly analyzes the key decisions social norms communications program designers must actively grapple with: method of engagement, output intensity, frequency of interaction, and routine monitoring.

Know Your Audience and Test Your Social Norms Message Before Launch

In order to accurately target your intended audience, it is essential to first determine whether a social norm is driving the corrupt pattern of behavior. This means determining which reference group has the most influence in a particular situation, distinguishing social norms components, and tailoring your program effectively. Of course, much like any other behavior change strategy, it is essential to pilot the message, gather feedback, and make adjustments before rolling out any program to communities.

The Constructive, Destructive, and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms, by Wesley Schultz, Jessica M. Nolan, Robert B. Cialdini, Noah J. Goldstein, and Vladas Griskevicius (2007)

Schultz et al. crucially distinguished between injunctive (beliefs about what others in a group approve/disapprove of) and descriptive (beliefs about what others in group do) norms. Here, adding a simple smiley or sad emoticon to convey social approval/disapproval successfully mediated against households increasing their energy consumption if they were below their neighborhood average. This highlights the importance of accounting for potential unintended backfire effects, since although social norm campaigns are typically aimed at individuals whose behavior is less desirable than the norm, the widespread nature of communications strategies all but ensures that those whose behavior is more desirable than normal also receive the message. For practitioners, this study outlines the impact and considerations behind providing normative social information, positive and negative message framing, and the importance of leveraging injunctive norms to influence behavior.

In focusing on the influence of messaging on corrupt behavior, Cheeseman and Peiffer found that the negative effects of anti-corruption messaging are far more powerful in encouraging bribery amongst individuals who are pessimistic perceivers—people who believe that corruption is pervasive—strengthening the collective action problem. Thus, targeted messaging at non-pessimists may be needed into order to produce the intended effects, which could theoretically be possible through leveraging big data and targeted advertising methods. This paper serves as a warning that program designers, implementers, and evaluators alike should be cognizant of boomerang effects that may occur and think about incorporating messages on social approval/disapproval of a behavior, rather than its prevalence.

Social marketing frameworks—information or awareness campaigns, removing barriers, and developing relationships within the community—outline the importance of following a systematic process for behavior change: plan, scope, develop, implement, evaluate, and follow-up. Wallen and Daut emphasize that before undertaking pilot testing with rigorous monitoring and evaluation, it is crucial to ask what issue is being addressed, whether social norms marketing is the right approach, who the target audience is, and what motivations undergird their behavior.

Their step-by-step guide to implement social norms behavior change is incredibly useful for practitioners who look to pursue scalable and effective social marketing approaches.

Anything to add?

In recent years social and behavior change communication approaches have come to the forefront, even as translating these strategies to the inherently complex social norms field remains an ongoing challenge.

We invite you to share your thoughts, resources, and insights about conducting an effective social norms communications campaign.


About the Author

Malavika Krishnan is a second-year Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, where she is focusing on development economics, technology policy, and international political economy. She is a former Research Assistant at the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Program, and spent this past summer as a Global Insights Intern at Accion Global Advisory Solutions. Malavika’s prior work experience includes stints as a Consultant at a corporate immigration law firm in Singapore and as a Litigation Paralegal at a securities law firm in New York City. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Government with a Certificate in International Relations from Wesleyan University.


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